Sitting on the plane this Wednesday, all I wanted to do was read or sleep, but the chatty gentleman in the aisle seat had other plans.

He launched into an interminable description of the week-long trip he was taking back to Melbourne to visit his aged mother for her 80th birthday. He described her current nursing home in great detail and then told me the age and family circumstances of each of her children and grandchildren.

I feigned polite interest as he droned on, but I must confess I only started paying real attention to his ramblings when he began describing the complex choreography that his extended family had engineered to ensure that he and his younger sister would never see each other during his visit, or even be in their mother’s house together at the same time.

They aren’t talking, you see. They’ve hated each other for years. The spouses have also bought into the fight over time, and their respective children have never met. The fight erupted decades ago over something quite minor and escalated into full blown war.

They aren’t talking. They’ve hated each other for years.

What a tragedy for the family, I thought to myself. An old mother forced to sit through two separate parties, probably never having the satisfaction of seeing all her descendants at peace. The other siblings forced to take sides, and imagine the toll those years of bile and anger must be taking on the protagonists themselves.

But as he wound his way through the byways of his family history, I began to realize that his mother and siblings were far from blameless. It seemed from the way he told the story that they had inadvertently fanned the fires of resentment by faithfully reporting each nasty gibe or comment back to its target. In his words; “I can trust my brothers to tell me everything that that (expletive deleted) is saying about me.”

I wondered at the time why anyone would feel duty bound to pass on information that they know is just going to inflame an already unhappy situation. Why would you repeat every piece of malicious gossip you hear? If you know you’re not helping the situation, surely you are always better off saying nothing than saying too much.

We parted ways at the airport, with me still stuck pondering his family dilemmas. I was still wondering why so many families fall out of love and degenerate into petty infighting, when, the very next day, I came across a fascinating story about the first Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and his famed contemporary, Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibuzh.

Rabbi Boruch was a great iconoclast, a fiery character inclined to absolutism who was engaged in a number of running battles with various rabbinic leaders throughout his time in public office. Rabbi Boruch was not a man to compromise or back down on what he believed to be the truth, and consequently, he was frequently embroiled in conflict.

Rabbi Boruch once complained to Rabbi Shneur Zalman that a number of false allegations against him (Rabbi Boruch) had recently been circulated by his enemies, and although Rabbi Shneur Zalman had been aware of these slurs, he had failed to inform him.

Why would you repeat every piece of malicious gossip you hear?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman admitted that he had indeed heard the aspersions, but rather than apologize for not having passed on the details, he defended his right to silence.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman reminded Rabbi Boruch about the incident of the snakes, found in this week’s parshah. The Israelites complained about G‑d and Moses, and in consequence G‑d sent a plague of snakes to attack them (Chukat 21:6). Unlike other occasions where G‑d discusses the proposed punishment with Moshe in advance, this time Moshe was unaware of the reason they were being attacked until the Israelites themselves approached him; We have sinned, for we spoke against G‑d and you. Pray to G‑d to remove the snakes! (21:7).

Of course Moshe, as the kind and ever-forgiving leader, prayed for them and the plague was averted, yet we have to wonder why did G‑d hide the cause of the plague from him in the first place?

Obviously, concluded Rabbi Shneur Zalman, not only is there no mitzvah to let people know the harsh things that others are saying about them, but we learn that you really shouldn’t repeat that type of gossip.

I’ve personally seen too many instances where well-meaning people have caused small arguments to develop into huge fights by playing the role of so-called honest broker. More often than not people would have worked out their own issues if left alone long enough to cool off. It’s the people who “feel it their duty” to pass on tattle, who are often the cause of the never-ending disputes.

I’m so tired of hearing about family fights where the people in the middle are surrounded by those on the outside alternatively egging them on or enabling them. How about resolving not to contribute to the mess? If you’re unfortunate enough to hear some juicy gossip, sit on it and don’t pass it on; it won’t help and will probably hurt.

Spare a thought for the poor mothers sitting alone and crying over the breakdown of their once happy families. Have pity on the rabbis and psychologists who have to sit through the stories and, most importantly, keep your conscience clean by resolving to never pass on damaging news.